Rome (AsiaNews) – Benedict XVI has been thinking about relations with China since the first days of his pontificate. A few weeks after his election in his first speech to the diplomatic corps on May 12, 2005, he also addressed “the nations with which the Holy See does not yet have diplomatic relations”. On that occasion he discussed possible diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic, not asking privileges for the Church, but “only the legitimate conditions of freedom to carry out her mission” combined with an “offer to cooperate, in her own province and with her own means, to safeguard the dignity of every person and to serve the common good.”
In the announcement made a few months ago about the ‘Letter to Chinese Catholics,’ which was published today, the Vatican expressed its desire to further develop a “respectful and constructive dialogue with the governing authorities in order to overcome past difficulties” hoping that “a normalisation of relations on all levels would come to pass.”
John Paul II held the same view and during the 27 years of his pontificate he devoted more than 30 speeches to the “great Chinese nation” and the Church in China, offering the Church’s dedication and service to society, asking only religious freedom in return (i.e. the right for the Church to appoint its own bishops).
The death of the Polish Pope—“guilty” in Beijing’s eyes of causing the collapse of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe—has led to a new phase in the relations between China and the Holy See.
In a number of highly discrete meetings between the Vatican and the Chinese Embassy in Italy an agreement was reached to allow some Chinese bishops to take part in the Synod on the Eucharist and to authorise the Sisters of Mother Teresa to open a home for the poor and the elderly in China. However, none of that happened. The four bishops invited to the synod were not allowed to leave the country. The sisters were officially invited but (so far) have not received any visa to come to China, to Qindao.
It is undeniable that there is greater good will and openness in Beijing, so much so that in 2006, after a visit by a Vatican delegation to China, the government said it would end all unlawful bishop ordinations sponsored by the Patriotic Association, a policy that had irritated the Holy See which had called them “extremely grave acts, which offend the religious sentiments of each and every Catholic in China and the rest of the world [. . .] consequence of a vision of the Church that does not correspond with Catholic doctrine”.
The new steps towards detente has one major obstacle, namely the Patriotic Association (PA), a government agency that has controlled the Catholic Church for the past 50 years and that still wants to establish a Christian community independent of the Vatican.
As much as China has become a capitalist powerhouse in the last 20 years, the PA (and the Religious Affairs Ministry) has remained the stronghold of a diehard Stalinist faction that stifles every glimmer of hope for its own ideological and economic interests, managing and dilapidating Church property for private use.
Of course, the Vatican is no longer condemned “as the running dog of Western capitalism” as it was in the 1950s. Even in official (i.e. government-sanctioned) churches prayers are said for the Pope during mass, but on issues like the appointment of bishops and the management of Church property, the PA remains intransigent.
For this reason, whilst some party insiders over the past few years have called for greater religious freedom, the PA has done everything in its power to block any rapprochement between China and the Vatican. This happened in 2006 with the unlawful bishop appointments; it happened in 2000 with the campaign against the canonisation of Chinese martyrs, the (unlawful) ordination of seven bishops and the arrest of underground bishops and priests.
Never the less, the PA is increasingly encountering resistance in bishops and believers. Following the Cultural Revolution, when official and underground bishops found themselves in the same camps as a result of the same persecution, and after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which destroyed the Communist Party’s credibility, more and more government-appointed bishops have secretly sought reconciliation with the Pope.
Now thanks to John Paul It’s magnanimity it is fair to say that official and underground Churches are one but in name.
Increasingly, the larceny and violence visited upon the Church is being resisted by a growing number of nuns, priests and bishops who demonstrate, write, and file charges against the PA and party members whose corruption is undermining Hu Junta’s much loved idea of “harmonious society.”
The last rear-guard battle by the PA and the party (or segments thereof) is to charge the Vatican with having relations with Taiwan. For decades China has insisted that any diplomatic dialogue with the Holy See had to meet two “pre-conditions”: not to use religion to interfere in the domestic affairs of China and break off relations with Taiwan.
That breaking relations with Taiwan was but an unrelated pretext became evident in 1999 when the then Secretary of State, Cardinal Sodano, said publicly that the Vatican Embassy in Taipei was in fact the embassy in Beijing and that he was prepared to move it back to the mainland, “not tomorrow but tonight.”
If the diplomatic mission is not in Beijing the responsibility lies with Mao Zedong who refused the presence of the Vatican nuncio, Mgr Antonio Riberi, in the newly-established People’s Republic and expelled him in 1951. Only in 1952 did Archbishop Riberi reluctantly move to Taiwan after many evasive signals and much silence from Beijing.
The other “pre-condition” is the real obstacle. For party ideologues “non-interference” means the right to appoint bishops and PA activities.
The future of diplomatic relations will depend on how China defines religious freedom. As late 1982 a secret party document indicated that it was still bent on destroying religion and create its own Church independent from Rome.
In 1999 when there were signs that diplomatic talks might start up again, another secret party paper said that underground bishops and priests had to be forced to submit to the PA and obey it on pain of jail or isolation.
Hu Jintao’s pragmatism and that of his faction is one factor that favours improved relations. China’s current leadership wants in fact to modernise China and improve its image in the world ahead of next year’s Olympics. Establishing relations with the Vatican would cap China’s final acceptance on the world stage.
By contrast, the state of anarchy and corruption that reign inside the party pushes in the opposite direction. Many party members are trying to personally profit from the mainland’s uncontrolled economic development, trying to preserve privileges and control.
But then again, Chinese society has changed. Unrest is growing and hundreds of demonstrations are taking place every day as people can no longer stand corruption in China’s provinces. Similarly, instead of withering away as some kind of “opium of the masses,” religion is gaining ground even among disillusioned party members. Under the circumstances perhaps religion might even save China from breakdown and collapse.